How you respond to the news that “Robe of Gems” director Natalia López Gallardo is making her feature debut after editing work by the likes of Amat Escalante and Carlos Reygadas may ultimately guide your response to the film as a whole. Though the first-time writer-director forges her own cinematic path here and is very much an artist unto herself, the influence of her collaborators is evident in this elliptical exploration of a criminal underbelly that’s spent so much time in the light it’s hardly even dark anymore.
Nailea Norvind stars as Isabel, who moves into her mother’s villa in rural Mexico along with her husband and children following the matriarch’s departure. There they learn that the sister of Mari, who’s taken care of the family home since time immemorial, has gone missing — a development that so upets Isabel it spurs her into ill-advised action. The plot becomes increasingly free-floating from there, with Gallardo privileging mood over narrative coherence in a way that may leave you scratching your head when you aren’t taking in the ruggedly beautiful landscapes.
“Robe of Gems” gradually announces itself as a kind of banality-of-evil story, one that depicts kidnapping as the cottage industry it’s become — and one that, for how obviously horrific it is, is also quite boring much of the time. Desperate people get mixed up in it for the same depressing reasons they get involved in all manner of illegal and/or immoral activities, and while Gallardo doesn’t come close to excusing it, she also shows that none of this takes place in a vacuum. Some who immerse themselves in this world have effectively silenced the voice in their heads that tells them how deeply wrong it all is, while others who’ve fallen in too deep want nothing more than to leave — even as they know the people they now work for and with will never allow that to happen. That some captors are also captives in their own right is an irony Gallardo touches on but doesn’t overstate.
Her prior credits include Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” in addition to Reygadas’ “Post tenebras lux” and Escalante’s “Heli”; Reygadas, who happens to be her husband, is also a co-producer here. Though less willfully obscure than he is, Lopez is no less skilled at unsettling her viewers even as they’re unsure what exactly it is they’re watching — if you’re waiting for a moment to whisper “that’s the robe of gems” to the person sitting next to you, rest assured that such a moment never arrives. None of this is a problem in and of itself, but a little esotericism goes a long way — and Gallardo isn’t exactly of the opinion that less is more in that department.
“Robe of Gems” still shines as a sensory experience, mind. The din of summer insects gives way to police department chatter in one scene and the not-quite bliss of Isabel’s home life in another. Here and elsewhere, the sound design makes the mundane disconcerting as it zeroes in on minutiae to highlight how strange some of the things we never think about truly are. A sudden act of violence, meanwhile, is nearly silent — just the kind of non-exclamation point we should have been expecting from Gallardo, perhaps, but one that shocks nevertheless.
As an editor, Gallardo knows better than most how much these granular details matter. Her languid style won’t be to the liking of viewers not attuned to a sensory approach that privileges vibes over such nonessential details as what exactly is happening at any given moment and why, but there’s no denying her control over the material — upsetting though much of it may be. The problem, then, is that too much of this is dispiriting without also being enlightening — the view Gallardo takes is almost that of a bird’s eye, showing much from an emotional remove but revealing little beyond surface-level horrors and characters so numb to it all that we’re left with little choice but to feel the same way.